Juno and the Paycock at The Abbey Theatre

October 24, 2013



Sean O Casey’s 1924 creations, the Boyle clan, are a prophetic metaphor for present day Ireland. Financially and morally bankrupt before they knew what to do with their new found wealth (other than spend it) it is a testament to the strength of O Casey’s words that they withstand some unsubtle and unsure playing in this co-production between the National Theatre’s of England and Ireland.

Directed by three time Olivier Award winner Howard Davies and reuniting, as the titular characters, The Bird’s co-stars Sinead Cusack and Ciaran Hinds, it succeeds as a crowd-pleaser by mining the scripts comedic gold, using it to gild the 4 leaf paddywhackery that so often shortchanges the hardship and bitterness which charge O Casey’s texts.

Set in a tenement flat, Juno is your quintessential Irish mother, keeping house and home as her work-shy husband talks of past adventures and her limping, one-armed son Johnny bears the scars of his. Her daughter Mary is out on strike, “for a principle is a principle” leaving Juno with a perpetual puss, all be it one that masks her deep love for her kin and her determination to survive. When Mary passes over the hardworking union leader Gerry Devine for the ‘Mickey Dazzler’ Mr. Bentham, who brings news of unexpected wealth, things seem to be on the up for the Boyle clan. But the Irish penchant to turn on their own brings wolves to the door, and the worst out from within, leading to a denudation of character for all who assemble on stage.

The problem here is in the reactive and one note style many of the characters are played. Sinead Cusack made for a passable Juno, all be it a miscast one whom you never, for one second, believe rolled up her sleeves in her life. She lacked the requisite fire in the plays opening scenes to make her strength in the final one credible and there was no chemistry between herself and Ciaran Hinds, who himself had to force the comedy in the plays first two acts before revealing a terrible rage and sadness. Clare Dunne was a hardened Mary, striking for sure but lacking any trace of femininity in her deliberate poses and trembling tones and paired with Ronan Raftery’s screechy, unlayered Johnny made it hard for one to feel sympathy for the family’s tragic end.

The support fairs no better. For an actor who possesses much natural charm, Nick Lee was oddly subdued as Mr. Bentham and only missing a tail and some hooves, to match the cape and cane he was costumed with (you half expect Mary to end up tied to some train tracks at the end). Bernadette McKenna brought too much to quickly in her brief appearance as Mrs. Tancred while Janet Moran, usually so effective in balancing the many facets of character to be touchingly memorable, fails to fully realize the duplicity of Mrs. Madigan. Risteard Cooper a spry and occasionally endearing Joxer, Captain Boyle’s sycophantic drinking buddy, provides some genuine relief, even if we never see the smarts which make him such a sly boots, while Tom Vaughan Lawlor also impresses as the love sick Devine, but he is made to physically express moments that would have been better left understated, most notably his rejection of Mary.

Were just one or two actors misfiring you might wonder what went wrong but for it to happen so widely across the board the fault must lie with Davies, whose truncheon like use of Anna Rice’s score has a ruinous effect, particularly on the play’s powerful final moments and who kept the stage so consistently busy that the audience were zipped along from scene to scene, observing but not emoting. He created some beautiful and effective stage pictures but could never handle the transitions between the moments of high camp and sobering grief and never does the conflict raging outside the tenement result in any sort of dramatic tension onstage.

This is an unchallenging production, which will entertain you without imparting the tragedy within its source material. As with all writing of this standard you leave with a continued appreciation of the text and a deep desire to one day see it done right, not simply all right.

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